TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS UHLMANN, ABC TV - 7:30
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 7 MARCH 2011
TOPICS: Amphibious ships fleet and accountability in the Department of Defence
LEIGH SALES: Let's cross now to our political editor Chris Uhlmann in Canberra. Chris, has Defence administration been accountable?
CHRIS UHLMANN: I'm sure that there are many people inside the Department of Defence who would say that they are accountable, but I think there's a broader question: what does accountability mean in the Department of Defence?
And to discuss that I'm joined by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
Welcome to 7.30.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure Chris.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Why did the Chief of Navy tell you the Tobruk was ready to sail when it wasn't?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think that's with respect, a bit of a pejorative analysis of the advice that I received on the Tobruk. The disappointing feature of the advice, and I've made my disappointment clear both publicly and privately, was the advice that saw Tobruk's condition deteriorate quite rapidly. I asked for the state of the Tobruk.
I was told that it was within 48 hours of operational readiness.
And then when it went into dry dock to be put into a full state of preparedness for the potential Cyclone Yasi, the ship deteriorated from that point and it's only been recently that I've been advised that, as from 27 February it's ready to operate on 48 hours notice.
CHRIS UHLMANN: But is that acceptable to you?
STEPHEN SMITH: What is not acceptable is that we have a very clear gap in our heavy lift amphibious capability. That's why in response to this issue I've required three things of Navy and the Defence Force. Firstly I have ordered an independent review by Paul Rizzo so that we can make some reforms to ensure this never happens again. This is the second time that we've seen this over a period of a quarter of a century.
Secondly, to require an urgent plan to make up that capability gap - and that's why you've seen from the beginning of this year me talk in terms of a United Kingdom Bay Class as a possibility, and also close cooperation with New Zealand. But thirdly…
CHRIS UHLMANN: Sure. And Minister, we could… go on, sorry.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thirdly, in doing this, I want to make sure that I don't leave effectively the same legacy for my successors as has been left with respect to the Kanimbla, the Manoora, and the Tobruk. We're dealing here with problems that have essentially been around for 30, 40 years.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Minister, all that is understood. It's an historic issue. But the question is - is it acceptable that you should be told the ship is ready when it isn't. And are there any consequences for that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the end as a Minister for Defence, I'm the one who is accountable to the public, and that's why I've taken the action that I have referred to. So far as Defence itself is concerned, there's no doubt that senior officials - whether it's the Chief of the Defence Force himself, the Chief of Navy, the Secretary or Chief Executive Officer of the Defence Materiel Organisation- all also have to accept responsibility.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And what does that mean? What are the consequences of those actions?
STEPHEN SMITH: What that means is we need to urgently make sure that we put a reform program into place so that this type of incident doesn't occur again - but secondly we urgently put in place what we need to cover the capability gap until the arrival of the so-called Landing Helicopter Docks in the middle of this decade.
CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, come to that in a moment. Is the Tobruk available today?
STEPHEN SMITH: The advice I have as at today is that the Tobruk continues to be available on 48 hours notice and readiness to sea - and that's been the case since 25 February.
CHRIS UHLMANN: And the advice is from the same people that told you last time, so you have confidence in that advice?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I have confidence in that advice until such time as I get different advice, and I've made the point both internally and publicly that one of the very serious issues of concerns so far as the Tobruk was concerned was the deteriorating advice in a rapidly short space of time.
CHRIS UHLMANN: All right, now this ship that - the replacement for these ships don't come online for four years. What are you going to do in between now and then? Because this ship will not be on 48 hours for the next four years.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's true, and that's why I've been saying since the beginning of this year that we have to look at alternative options. I'm leaving Australia early tomorrow for the United Kingdom. I'll be having further discussions with the UK Defence Secretary about the possibility of Australia leasing or purchasing a Bay Class amphibious lift vessel which is available from the United Kingdom.
But we also have all other options on the table including as we have in the past, the use potentially of commercial options available in Australia whether they're catamarans or trimarans. So we are exploring every option because as you correctly point out and as I have appreciated for some time, we cannot proceed with confidence that the Tobruk will always be available.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Finally and very briefly Minister how can we have confidence in the navy which [indistinct] enormous amount of money over the next few years to build up its capability if it can't manage the kit that it's got now?
STEPHEN SMITH: We need to ensure that we continue with the reform program that this Government has put in place. Forever and a day we've had difficulties in Defence procurement and acquisition and we've put in place reform programs over the last three or four years to improve that, but there's a lot more work to be done.